No place for fiction in history

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A new award for non-fiction - the Samuel Johnson Prize - selected its first winner last week, presenting pounds 30,000 to Anthony Beevor for his tense account of the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. The dramatic breakthrough in the Balkans made it a suggestive time to be handing out garlands to the story of a protracted military siege, but Beevor's book was no mere rehash of well-known events. He had plundered the Russian archives for first-hand testimony, and was able to paint a grim picture of the icy day-to-day misery that gripped the luckless souls trapped in Stalingrad during those awful months.

The rise and rise of non-fiction has been well documented in recent years. The novel has hardly been sidelined, but true stories - which once meant little more than turgid biographies and stuffy memoirs - have found a fresh vitality, partly by laying whole-hearted claim to what used to be a fictional device: the first-person narrator. In the hands of writers as different as Tom Wolfe and VS Naipaul (a case of the hare and the tortoise if ever there was one) it has become as personal and dramatic as the wildest fiction. It has also been able to tap a rich and eloquent seam of literary gold, in the form of the full vibrant spectrum of authentic voices.

Anthony Beevor's success is a nice reward for some serious work in this area, though he may choose not to dwell one of the many famous sayings attributed to the prize's inspiration, Samuel Johnson. "Great abilities are not requisite for an historian," he said. "Imagination is not required in any high degree." This was probably never true: historians, almost by definition, describe events they did not witness. Moreover, in their eagerness to appropriate some of the trappings of fiction, and a slice of its glamour and prestige, today's authors of non-fiction have shown few qualms in simply making things up.

The list of outright frauds is long and growing. The virus has found an obliging host in television, where documentary after documentary, and chat show after chat show, is exposed as rigged. And by a curious coincidence, the new issues of both Granta and the New Yorker include long explorations into one of the most remarkable cases of all. Four years ago a Latvian survivor of Auschwitz, Binjamin Wilkomirski, wrote a book, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood in which he described, in a sequence of dreamy recollections, a childhood of unbelievable privation and violence at Nazi hands (an extract appeared in the Independent on Sunday two weeks ago).

The book was much celebrated as a fresh insight into the ghastly pageant of the Holocaust. But then it transpired that Wilkomirski might actually be (indeed, probably is) a bourgeois Swiss who had never been to Auschwitz at all, except as a tourist.

It looks like an astounding and offensive deception. And it encourages us to insist on something that ought not to require emphasis: the truth does matter, even if it is hard to say what it is. Hemingway once wrote that the ambition of his life was to write one true sentence (no easy task, some said, for an old bullshitter like him). The whole point of Wilkomirski's narrative was that it described events that really happened. It is a breathtaking sophistry to maintain, as some have, that it "still works as literature". This implies, after all, that literature is a lower- level activity, more permissive of deceit. It is neither surprising nor shocking that someone can imagine horrendous cruelty - thriller writers do it every week (see under H Lecter).

As the consensus views on truth (mainly religious ones) melt away, to be replaced by a babble of competing world views, it is almost inevitable that we should give special privileges to first-hand accounts. But we do need to resist the growing reflex to honour the private memories of any one individual, when everyone knows that memory is the most unreliable narrator of all. At the end of his New Yorker account of the affair, Philip Gourevitch writes sadly of Wilkomirski: "I am more fearful for and depressed by the culture that received him as an apostle of memory than I am for the man himself, whoever he thinks he is."

A survey published last week showed that we routinely lie to get off work, to spare other people's feelings or to excuse our own failures. Predictably, the survey highlighted sexual lying, and concentrated on the large number of men who admitted (or boasted) that they lied to get women into bed. Why anyone should believe a survey composed of proven liars is a genuine miracle of our opinion-poll world. The main thing to remember is that not all lies are equal. They can be fun - April Fools day is an annual bit of deceitful sport - and they can be harmless. They can even, probably, be virtuous. But let's hope, as we give increasingly substantial prizes to non- fiction, that we don't lose sight of the key word there: non.